Selling South Africa: Poverty, Politics and the 2010 FIFA World Cup

Published on Global Research.ca, by Chris Webb, March 24, 2010.

Why is it that governments can find billions of dollars for global sporting events and little to deal with the grinding poverty that affects impoverished populations? Canada applauded itself for the $135-million in aid and disaster relief it sent to an earthquake ravaged Haiti while spending nearly $6-billion on the two-week long Vancouver Olympics. A similar contradiction is revealing itself in South Africa, where massive amounts of public and private spending on the upcoming 2010 Soccer World Cup are expected to salve a faltering economy and crippling poverty. Most South Africans, however, will see little direct or sustained economic benefit from the games let alone muster the funds to even purchase a ticket. 

What is trumpeted as a branding and investment remedy to South Africa’s economic woes may very well become another Greek tragedy – where the legacy of the 2004 Athens Olympics has contributed to an economic meltdown. These global games offer dual incentives to both local and foreign business elites and little to a frustrated local population. On the one hand, investment, sponsorship and tourism opens new markets to foreign capital while local business elites profit from a heightened global image. At least, this is the story sold by both the state and World Cup planners. Central to this strategy is selling South Africa as a marketable and consumable brand.

The transition from apartheid to democratic rule in South Africa has been well documented. During this period, the pressures of both domestic and foreign capital forced the emergent African National Congress (ANC) government to follow the economic paradigms of the past and encourage foreign investment. The sanctions that once crippled the economy gave way to a period of increasing investment and relatively stable economic growth. Promoting a comfortable and gentrified image of South Africa perfectly serves the ruling African National Congress’s redistribution through growth policy that is intended to drum up foreign investment while selling off government owned assets. The Soccer World Cup effectively opens these economic and political spaces necessary to further neoliberal policies and development.

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Media portrayals of South Africa have focused heavily on the alarming rise in violent crime in South Africa and the daily-increasing rape and homicide rates (50 murders a day). Domestic and international pressure to take action on violent crime before the World Cup was so intense that South Africa’s chief of police told Sky News that his officers should kill criminals if they came under attack. A British company has even begun marketing a 2010 stab-proof vest for football fans visiting the country.

International concern has largely been for the safety of tourists and players visiting South Africa during the tournament and not for those poor and disenfranchised South Africans who face violent crime while living in dire poverty. Indeed, few commentators have asked what benefit the games will have for those living in townships in sight of the new million dollar stadiums. Daunting economic problems remain from the apartheid era – particularly poverty in black communities, lack of economic empowerment among disadvantaged groups, and a shortage of public transportation and housing. More than one-quarter of South Africa’s population currently receives social grants, leading some to label it the largest welfare state in the world. South Africa has a 24 per cent unemployment rate with 50 per cent of the population living below the poverty line. At the same time, the richest members of society have increased their annual earnings by as much as 50 percent. According to the Gini Index – a measurement of household income inequalities – South Africa has the second most unequal distribution of income in the world, just behind its neighbor Namibia.

For these reasons ordinary working South Africans may see the billboards and advertising brought by the World Cup, but they are unlikely to see the games themselves. The ticket prices to the big event are likely to deter most of Africa’s soccer enthusiasts. With 3 million tickets available, less than 100,000 have been sold in Africa as most Africans are not able to afford the expensive entry fees. Chief Executive Officer of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Danny Jordaan said that it is the first time in World Cup history that the host nation is not topping the ticket sales list. According to FIFA, the cheapest ticket will cost 55 Euros (570 Rand) for tickets that will entail the holder to sit behind goals. The cheapest ticket for the final is going for 275 Euros (2,842 Rand).

At the bottom end of the economic scale, are those who will only be impacted negatively by the World Cup. Like Cape Town’s street sellers, who are reportedly being driven from the city’s streets by police and a private security company. Police also recently relocated 600 people who had been camping alongside an inner city railway line in Cape Town to a transit zone on the outskirts of the city. While Danny Jordaan has promised no evictions, the record is against him thus far. These forced relocations draw on the legacy of apartheid era racial and spatial segregation. In this practice South Africa is not alone. It is estimated that the 1988 Seoul Olympics resulted in the eviction of 700,000 people; and the 2008 Beijing Olympics displaced 1.5 million residents.

Udesh Pillay and Orli Bass, researchers with South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council, suggest “inequality may even be exacerbated by the hosting of the World Cup… There is no proof that the hosting of mega-events will result in meaningful job creation.” They argue that billions invested in stadium construction and infrastructure renewal may not trickle-down as many politicians expect. “The success of the games will be measured not only in terms of how South African cities are made more competitively global, but in terms of how an undertaking to the poor and indigent can be fulfilled.”

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(Chris Webb is a South African journalist, scholar and activist living in Toronto. His writing has appeared in Canadian Dimension, New Internationalist, Canada’s History and the Winnipeg Free Press. He is the Publishing Assistant at Canadian Dimension).

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